Pharmaceutical sector looks to unlock value with artificial intelligence

Autor Oumama Syassi
September 11, 2018

The wave of digitisation sweeping the world is making firm inroads into the pharmaceutical industry – artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain will all start influencing the decisions of pharmaceutical companies.

There is also a continued focus on the impact of disruption – including some massive names. Last year Amazon applied for and received pharmacy wholesale licences in several US states. The spectre of one of the globe’s online retail giants entering the sector sent shockwaves through retailers. It also potentially hastened one of the biggest corporate merger deals this year – the ongoing $69 billion merger between CVS and Aetna.

There is no doubt that technology companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook – many of whom have already been testing the water – will have major roles to play going forwards. Disruption in the pharma space will continue to be a cause for attention for any life sciences leader. The winners will ultimately be those companies that can both embrace the new technologies and separate the real value from the hype.

Getting value from disruption

Industry 4.0, Big Data, blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) are the hot buzzwords this year that all companies are trying to get a better handle on. And it’s AI that is leading the way.

The pharmaceutical industry is studying the benefits of AI carefully after seeing its impact in other sectors. Although slow to start the AI journey, pharma is now coming on board. But like many so-called disruptive technologies, AI is shrouded in hype. As such, the pharma sector is focusing on specific and targeted benefits such as how it will affect drug discovery and development.

It is during the protracted drug-discovery process that researchers can utilise some of the main benefits of AI. By utilising advanced computer algorithms it is possible to teach machines how to interpret raw, complex data by detecting patterns. This makes AI a perfect fit for mining and relating the mountainous genotypic and phenotypic data being collected worldwide in public and private databases.

One of the challenges when it comes to drug discovery is the lack of understanding of the biological intricacies of disease. AI could help identify the true causal genes and pathways for complex diseases that still elude scientists despite advances in genome sequencing.

One example comes from the drug design company Numerate. The organisation is using its AI platform to identify and deliver clinical candidates in oncology, gastroenterology and central nervous system disorders for Takeda Pharmaceutical Company.

The aim is to produce multiple clinical candidates while also refining and expanding its proprietary AI-driven platform – all through a combination of computer science advances and traditional medicinal chemistry approaches. All of this looks to make small-molecule drug discovery quicker and more efficient.

Collective intelligence

AI is also a valuable tool when it comes to synthesising the huge array of knowledge that the pharmaceutical industry generates.

A traditional biomedical researcher deals with a vast amount of raw data each day. Globally, the bioscience industry is estimated to generate more than 10,000 new publications a day. It’s an impossible task for researchers to process all that knowledge.

AI and machine learning have a vital role to play in augmenting the work of drug development researchers so that an informed first analysis of the data can be conducted to form essential new knowledge.

For example, London-based BenevolentAI is developing an AI platform to help scientists access and use all the data available to them. 

The technology employs various deep-learning models to analyse and understand the context of the information. It then reasons, learns, explores and translates what it has learned and comes up with its own hypotheses.

One concern – and this is no different to any other sector that is utilising AI – is what effect it will have on the sector’s human capital.

The short answer is that there is nothing to worry about. AI will never replace human scientists. Instead, researchers will be expected to work alongside the technology by asking the appropriate questions and providing a sufficient amount of data to compute the algorithms.

For AI and machine learning in drug discovery, there is plenty more to come. However, even at this early stage, the technology is giving us a host of new insights into disease and helping to identify promising targets.

Middle East continues to grow

When it comes to the Middle East, the Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafza) is a leading hub and home to some of the world’s foremost healthcare multinationals.

The free zone accounted for $3.86 billion in 2016, almost a quarter of the UAE’s health spend of $16.96 billion. Earlier this year it took part in the region’s largest gathering of healthcare and trade professionals – the Arab Health 2018 conference and exhibition.

The healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors are key strategic targets in the Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030. Jafza is already the regional headquarters for many international healthcare companies and there are signs that pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies may transfer more of their facilities and research centres to the region.

The figures look good. According to a recent BMI Research report, the UAE’s pharmaceutical and healthcare markets are among the best performers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

And those numbers are rising. The report forecasts that in the UAE, the sector will grow from $16.96 billion in 2017 to $17.88 billion this year before hitting $21.27 billion in 2021. For the wider MENA region, it forecasts growth from $174.43 billion in 2017 to $182.43 billion in 2018 and $213.1 billion by 2021.

Despite any concerns around big-name disruptors, such growth in the sector is clearly encouraging. And for companies looking to ride the wave, investment in digitisation – and in the people capable of harnessing that digitisation – is a must.